Here's the Solution to Your Labor Shortage

Crain's Chicago Business

By Lisa Bertagnoli

Entry-level jobs are hard to fill at Eurest, a food-service and hospitality firm that employs about 1,000 people in Chicago. So James Kallas, Eurest's division president, is working with a nonprofit to build a basic culinary-skills training program. The program has the potential to supply Eurest with 30 to 40 well-trained employees a year.

The new employees will have something in common other than strong footing in culinary basics. They will all have a criminal conviction in their past, a past Kallas is willing to overlook. "We need the people," he says. "There are people out there who are willing to change." The jobs, many of them full time with benefits, will pay $12 to $15 an hour and provide ample opportunity to climb the career ladder. "Hospitality is a very forgiving business, one of the few left where you can grow into a supervisor or manager role," Kallas says, noting that he started in the business 30 years ago.

With the U.S. unemployment rate at 4.1 percent and 6 million jobs unfilled nationwide, hiring people with criminal records, even those who have served jail or prison sentences, has moved from corporate kindness to corporate necessity. To fill jobs, companies are looking with fresh eyes at a sizable demographic that has historically been all but excluded from the workforce. According to National Employment Law Project data, an estimated 42 percent of Illinois' 9.8 million adults have arrest records. Experts, however, say that such data can be unreliable or misleading. For instance, the FBI considers anyone arrested on a felony charge to have an arrest record, even if the arrest did not result in a conviction.

"People are starting to realize that a huge percentage of the population has records," says Victor Dickson, CEO of Safer Foundation, the nonprofit with which Eurest is creating the culinary training program. By using an arrest record to deny employment, "we are excluding a large percentage of the population from the pool of available workers," Dickson says.

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